MYTILENE – Although a Greek court rejected charges against 24 aid workers and volunteers of human smuggling – for saving the lives of refugees – and sent the case back to prosecutors, the United Nations wants it dropped.
“Trials like these are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect,” UN rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell said, reported Al Jazeera.
Heat is on Greece for bringing the charges at the same time the New Democracy government has repeatedly denied accusations of pushing back refugees and migrants at sea.
In this case, they were trying to reach the island of Lesbos, sent by human traffickers that Turkey allows to operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
Turkey is holding some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, primarily Syria and Afghanistan, thousands coming to Greece after the EU closed its borders to them.
Prosecutors in Greece said the rescue workers were abetting smuggling by aiding people at sea in risk of drowning – some perished anyway – but critics and human rights groups said that’s punishing rescue efforts.
The accused were also charged with espionage, the case during fire from a number of Members of the European Parliament as well as the prosecution tries to defend charging them.
Those on trial include noted Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee and competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2021, the story shown in a Netflix document, said Al Jazeera in a report on the case.
Mardini, who wasn’t at the trial’s opening on Lesbos, and fellow volunteer Sean Binder – who was – spent more than three months in jail on the Greek island after their 2018 arrest on misdemeanor charges that included espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies, the report noted.
Described in a European Parliament report as “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity” in Europe, the trial was initially set to proceed in 2021 but was postponed over procedural issues before now starting.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement the “targeting human rights defenders and individuals engaged in acts of solidarity is both incompatible with states’ international obligations and has a chilling effect on human rights work.”
The trial and other prosecutions of human rights workers, smear campaigns, cumbersome registration procedures for non-governmental organisations and pressure on journalists had “undermined the protection of human rights and shrunk the civic space” in Greece, she said, the news agency reported.
“I urge the Greek authorities to ensure that human rights defenders and journalists can work safely and freely, by providing an enabling environment for their work and publicly recognising their important role in a democratic society,” Mijatovic said.
Harlem Desir, Senior Vice-President of the International Rescue Committee’s Europe affairs, called on the EU to “forge a new approach” when dealing with asylum seekers who attempt irregular crossings.
The Greek trial is “emblematic of a broader trend towards the EU disrupting people’s journeys and deterring people from reaching Europe, often leaving them trapped in dire conditions or at risk at sea, rather than protecting them along their journeys or providing routes to safety,” he said.